YMCA and Parkview Wabash Hospital team up to teach students how to swim

An O.J. Neighbours Elementary School student uses a floatation device to him in the YMCA pool. Photo by Eric Stearley
by Eric Stearley
For third graders at OJ Neighbours Elementary School, gym class is a little different this month. Instead of changing their shoes and heading to the gymnasium, they grab a swimsuit and get on a bus; they’re going to the YMCA to learn how to swim. 
“The kids are having a blast with this. They look forward to coming, and it’s a great opportunity for them to learn by doing,” said YMCA Aquatics Director Dave Ringler. “This program has been going on now for at least two or three years.”
In past years, students from Southwood Elementary, Sharp Creek Elementary, and WC Mills Elementary had a chance to learn water safety and swimming skills at the YMCA for four weeks in place of gym class. More than 450 students in grades 3-5 participated. Following the closure of WC Mills and the restructuring of Wabash City Schools, OJ Neighbours students got their first chance to go to the pool this year.
“There was a swim program that was offered through the YMCA through a grant, and so absolutely, we wanted to take advantage of that program for the students,” said Physcial Education Teacher Patty Meagher. “It’s been a great program. 
“It came about through discussions with the Y and how we could work together and more closely on some things,” said Marilyn Custer-Mitchell, president and CEO of Parkview Wabash Hospital, which provides the grant. “We’re in the business of healthcare, and we want to do more with preventative care and health and wellbeing in the community, versus just treating people when they’re sick, and so in general discussions with them, that came up as an opportunity, and we thought it was a great opportunity. It’s a great thing to make sure that kids know how to swim, so that there are fewer accidents and issues related to water, pools and lakes.”
Shortly after arriving at school, students grab their swimsuits and head to the bus, arriving at the YMCA around 9 a.m. After some quick instructions from Ringler, students change clothes and anxiously await the chance to jump in and begin one of three stations. On Jan. 22-23, students learned basic floating and survival strokes in one station, practiced saving each other with floatation devices in the second, and learned about proper use of life jackets in the third. Each station is organized by one of the YMCA’s swimming instructors, and a lifeguard oversees pool safety during the class.
“The first group that went was the fourth graders. We did that at the end of the first semester, so I was talking to the third graders about what the fourth graders had been doing, so they got really super excited about coming,” said Meagher. “They talked about it for a couple months.”
This year, Ringler hopes to work with as many as 650 students from around the county.
“Our goal is to teach water safety lessons to all of our resident third, fourth, and fifth graders,” said Ringler. “We’re in a position where we can grow a little bit, and were looking to expand our reach to some other area schools as well.”
Taking a field trip for gym class is a bit unorthodox, but teachers and administrators felt that water safety classes were an important opportunity for students, even though it takes some extra time to travel to and from the YMCA.
“Some of these kids may not have that opportunity to pick that up, because they may not have an opportunity to come to the Y or to the Honeywell Pool, so they need to learn these safety skills, swimming skills, and survival skills,” said Meagher.
“I would say with most third graders, this is introductory level swim skills. We are definitely teaching age appropriate skills, so third graders are working on floating, treading, and survival skills. Fourth graders are working more on stroke refinement. They’re also introduced to boat safety in fourth grade, and then with our fifth graders, we emphasize safety skills, but we also do a lot of sports related conditioning with them,” said Ringler. 
With the program set up for three consecutive grade levels, students have the opportunity to learn and develop new swimming and safety techniques as they get older. 
“We see a big improvement from third grade to fourth grade,” said Ringler. “When children are 8, 9 and 10, that’s a great age to start learning to swim, so we do see a lot of great progress.”
“And the neat thing is, I’ve been told that there are funds available for next year, so I’ve already been talking to the second graders,” said Meagher. “I’ll say, ‘We just came back from the Y, and when you get to be third graders, you’ll get to go to the Y.’”
Custer-Mitchell confirmed that Parkview Wabash Hospital plans to continue supporting the program for many years to come.
“Absolutely, yes!” she said. “It comes straight from the hospital. We felt it was a good way to use some money for community support and community health and wellbeing.”
Students love the opportunity to swim during the school’s only off-campus PE program. For some students, the class reinforces the skills they have already learned. For others, it’s their first exposure to swimming, particularly in the deep end of the pool. 
“I’m going to say about half to three-quarters have pretty good swimming skills already,” Meagher said about her third grade class on their second day in the water. “There’s just that small group that is not quite sure.”
Meagher and Ringler agree that the hesitation usually doesn’t last long.
“It’s amazing,” said Meagher. “Once they’ve learned some skills, they’re like, ‘I did it,‘ and they’re so proud of themselves.”
In addition to learning skills in the water, the program aims to build students’ confidence, which aligns with the YMCA aquatics program slogan, “strong swimmers, confident kids.” 
“Anything that we can do to help students learn to swim so we can prevent more accidents, that’s a great thing,” said Custer-Mitchell. 
Posted on 2015 Feb 03